in CIE, English Literature, Poetry

Here’s an analysis of ‘Sonnet 29’ by Edna St Vincent Millay, it’s tailored towards GCSE or IGCSE CIE (Cambridge) students but is also helpful for anyone studying this poem at any level or with any exam board — including AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC and CCEA.


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Sonnet 29

Pity me not because the light of day

At close of day no longer walks the sky;

Pity me not for beauties passed away

From field to thicket as the year goes by;

Pity me not the waning of the moon,

Nor that the ebbing tide goes out to sea.

Nor that a man’s desire is hushed so soon.

And you no longer look with love on me.

This have I known always: Love is no more

Than the wide blossom which the wind assails.

Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore.

Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales:

Pity me that the heart is slow to learn

When the swift mind beholds at every turn.

Edna St Vincent Millay (1923) 

VOCABULARY

Pity — to feel sorry for someone

Assails — attacks

Thicket — a group of bushes or trees

Gales — strong winds

Wreckage — the broken objects / amount of damage created after a violent event such as a storm

Waning — when the moon disappears from the sky a little day by day

Couplet — two lines that go together in a poem 

Octave — a group of eight lines that forms a stanza or section of a poem

STORY / SUMMARY

The speaker commands the addressee to not feel sorry for them when sunlight leaves the sky, or for the passing of ‘beauties’, which could refer to her own beauty or beautiful things that she found in life that are now gone. These beautiful things have passed from the field – where they would be easily visible – to the ‘thicket’, i.e. hidden. She also doesn’t want the reader to feel sorry for her because the moon is ‘waning’, disappearing. Or because the tide is flowing out. She then switches from natural imagery to more personal, human imagery and says we shouldn’t pity her because men stop loving too quickly, and ‘you’ stopped loving her – this is the first time we realise that the poem is addressed to her previous partner. She says she has always known that love is nothing more than flower blossoms being attacked by the wind, than the sea tide that touches the beach, which brings up litter and destroyed objects. She asks the addressee to pity her only for the fact that her heart is slow to catch up and process, whereas her mind is quick to adapt and move on.

SPEAKER / VOICE

The speaker has a female presence, and she speaks directly in the poem to her past partner or lover – we don’t know how long their relationship lasted. She changes her tone from being quite defiant at the beginning – where she asks the addressee not to feel sorry for her when he stopped loving her because it was a natural process – but at the end, she does ask him to pity her as her heart is too slow to catch up (she still loves him / finds it hard to move on), so it has a more sad and poignant tone.  There is a transition from inner strength to weakness in the poem

LANGUAGE FEATURES

Anaphora – “Pity me not” / “Pity me” – Millay repeats the phrase ‘pity me not’ early on in the poem, each time providing a new example from nature about why we shouldn’t feel sorry for her. The repetition of the phrase might suggest that she has an obsession with this man and their ended relationship, or it might indicate that her brain is trying to give lots of different reasons why she should accept it and move on. Eventually, this phrase breaks down and becomes positive instead of negative – she says ‘pity me’ and asks the addressee to feel sorry for her, suggesting she has let her emotions overcome her mind and that she is still broken in some ways despite trying to move on. 

Visual Imagery – “ebbing tide goes out to sea.” “waning of the moon”  “From field to thicket as the year goes by;”

Alliteration – The tide brings “fresh wreckage gathered in the gales” > the repeated ‘g’ sounds emphasises the circularity of the image, the pieces that the sea brings in have been collected in a storm, and the repetition of the ‘g’ is quite a forceful sound that emphasises the strength of the storm and also the swirling motion of the sea as it collects debris – there is a hidden sense of violence that perhaps suggests she had quite a fiery and difficult relationship. 

Metaphor – Cyclical forces of nature suggest that love is also cyclical, and Millay states in the poem that a man’s love for a woman always ends: “a man’s desire is hushed so soon.”

Symbolism: The waning of the moon can refer to the loss of romance and passion, since moonlight is often considered a sensuous setting – the moon is fading, so it suggests that romance is over.

STRUCTURE / FORM

  • The traditional Shakespearean sonnet form
  • The traditional themes of a sonnet usually revolve around the tormented lover, this role is evident in the sonnet.
  • The first stanza begins with her rational comparisons of nature to love. Millay then shifts the topic to beauty and the aging process. Finally, there is a descent into emotions and feelings
  • In traditional sonnets, the final couplet (the last two lines) holds the answer to difficult questions explored in the earlier lines. The couplet ends with a surprise and a tying together of all the elements of the poem above it. 
  • Tone shift – The beginning of the poem is quite defiant – the speaker asks us not to feel sorry for her, but the end of the poem (final couplet) feels a lot softer and weaker, it breaks the confident tone and becomes more sad and broken – she does ask for sympathy in the end.

CONTEXT

  • Millay lived from 1892-1950.
  • The poem was written in 1923 – during the Modernist period, a time where poets were very exploratory with their writing and sought to capture new ideas and emotions – we can see this in the poem where Millay goes into the very different and subtle shifts in feeling that the speaker has following the break-up and the examination of a tormented lover’s psyche. (Unrequited).
  • Famous for her works of sonnets — poems that explore emotions and ideas in an abstract way, without any strict story or narrative, especially focused on different aspects of love. (you can call her a sonneteer, a writer of sonnets).
  • Millay perfected this “tormented lover” role in her sonnets — it is not her opinions directly in the poem, she is taking on a persona or becoming a character in order to explore certain emotions.
  • In terms of personal context, Millay had a difficult life before 1923 (when the poem was written) but this year she married a rich man and fell in love, and she acquired the freedom to devote her life to her writing. Her poetry became a success this year, she found love and remained happily married (despite the opinion in the poem that the love always fades).
Portrait of Edna St Vincent Millay by Carl Van Vechten
Source: Library of Congress

ATTITUDES

“And you no longer look with love on me.” – The woman is being defensive that she realised that the man didn’t love her – it’s almost as if she’s accusing him. 

“Pity me that the heart is slow to learn” – This suggests that the woman wants the man to understand that she doesn’t know how to deal with or recover from this type of situation.

“When the swift mind beholds at every turn.” – The mind of the woman is quick to catch up and move on – logically, she understands that the relationship is over and it makes sense to her. 

“light of day” fades into night, “beauties” disappear over time, “waning moon” “ebbing tide”  – The woman observes natural processes in nature and believes that relationships are the same – they grow and then fade, and this normal.

THEMES

Nature – The poet says that disappearing or fading away is a natural part of life, and gives many examples of how this happens in nature e.g. the moon wanes, the tide flows out. So, she says that the man falling out of love with her is just natural, like all of these other processes. 

Cycles – The cycles of nature are used as a justification for why the love between the speaker and addressee faded away over time. However, in the final two lines, we feel some tension and resistance to this idea, as the speaker’s heart is unable to adapt quickly to the loss of the partner.

Beauty – Millay talks of fading beauty and says that when beauty fades it is natural that a man’s attention should fade too. We could say that demonstrates the tragic nature of love and relationships, and that women at this time felt a lot of pressure to be and stay beautiful. 

Emotions – the poet changes the emotions of the poem in the second half. In the first half of the poem, the woman tries to justify why the man left her, so she restrains her emotions. However, in the second half of the poem, she feels as if there’s a split between her heart and mind, her mind has moved on, but her heart is taking a long time to recover. 

Relationships – The relationship was strong between the man and the woman because it was enough for her to write a poem in order to explore her emotions and feelings. However, the speaker is trying to let go of negative feelings after the relationship ended – she is not bitter or angry, regretful, or sad. We have a feeling that part of her reaction is being suppressed when she says ‘the heart is slow to learn’.

Love – She looks at the sunset and one is reminded of the warmth love brings to life. Millay finishes the octave directly tying love to nature. There is a sense that love is now unrequited – one-sided. She is ‘slow to learn’ a new way of being, where she has moved on from her state of harmonious love with her partner.

Psychoanalysis – Millay is ruthless when it comes to exploring her own nature – she delves deeply into difficult and complex emotions.

POSSIBLE ESSAY QUESTIONS 

  1. How does Millay strikingly convey feelings of love in ‘Sonnet 29’? 
  2. In what ways does Millay explore powerful emotions in ‘Sonnet 29’?

Thanks for reading! If you found this useful, take a look at our other poetry analyses by clicking here.

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